USC Trojans vs. California Golden Bears Game Preview and Prediction

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USC Trojans vs. California Golden Bears Game Preview and Prediction
Harry How/Getty Images

The USC Trojans (4-1) visit the California Golden Bears (3-2) at AT&T Park on Thursday, October 13 for an important game for both teams.

The Trojans defense is reeling from the last two games against the Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats.

QB Nick Foles, in particular, shredded the USC defense for 425 yards and 41 points. Of course, he also threw for 398 yards against both Top-10 teams, Oregon and Oklahoma State.

The USC defense has something to prove in this game and expect them to be more aggressive and play better than the last two games. However, they are not the only unit that needs to show improvement.

Cal lost a close game to the Washington Huskies on September 24 when a chance to tie the game was missed on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line netted zero yards in four plays. The Bears played No. 9* Oregon Ducks tough in the first half leading 15-14 before getting run over in the second half and losing 43-15.

After losing their last two games the Bears badly need a win to avoid a 0-3 Pac-12 start after winning their first three games of the season.

Key Stats Comparison


Category

USC

Ranking

Cal

Ranking



Rushing Offense (Yards)

136.6

   71

157.6

   57



Passing Offense (Yards)

317.8

   15

300.4

   20



Total Offense (Yards

454.4

   29

458

   26



Scoring Offense (Points)

  30.0

   56

 34.6

   33



Passing Efficiency (Percent)

161.7

   14

124.4

   76



Third Down Conversions (Percent)

 49.18

   21

  40.8

   69



Red Zone Conversions (TDs)

 55.0

   92

  60.9

   44



Sacks allowed (Number)

  0.8

   13

   1.6

 T-45



Rushing Defense (Yards)

112.4

   31

135.6

   51



Pass Defense (Yards)

267.2

   98

228.4

   74



Total Defense (Yards)

379.6

   61

364

   53



Scoring Defense (Points)

  26.4

   68

  28

   74



Sacks (Number)

   2.0

   51

  2.8

   10



Tackles for Loss (Number)

  4.8

   98

  7.8

   14



Net Punting (Yards/Punt)

 36.92

   57

37.3

   47



Punt Returns (Yards)

   9.3

   40

  1.6

 115



Kickoff Returns (Yards)

 20.6

   81

20.4

   85



FG Success (Percent)

 87.5

 T-21

88.9

T-16



Turnover Margin

 -1.0

  104

  0.6

   29



Penalties

 62.4

   87

71.2

  105









 

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
WR Robert Woods leads the nation in receiving and runs well after the catch

Keys to USC victory

When the Trojan offense is not making mistakes, it is quick-striking, dynamic and vertical.

The USC school record 468 yards and passing by QB Matt Barkley good for 48 points in the Arizona game with targets like sophomore WR Robert Woods and freshman WR Marqise Lee show what can happen with only one turnover and three penalties. Of course, Arizona has a weaker defense than Cal.

USC needs to continue to play an aggressive passing offense, but compliment it with a more balanced running attack. This requires better run blocking starting in the first half.

The inexperienced offensive line is improving and providing very good pass protection. Coach Lane Kiffin assessed the OL as follows: “… the right guard [John Martinez] is playing better — and the right tackle [Kevin Graf] and left guard [Marcus Martin] have to step it up and play better. And the center [Khaled Holmes] and left tackle [Matt Kalil] are playing really well.”

However, the OL hasn’t opened holes for the running backs in the first half. There has been more success later in the game averaging 95.4 yards in the second half, which is third in the conference. The Trojans' total rushing is ranked eighth in the Pac-12, averaging 136.6 yards per game.

Freshman George Farmer leaps for a great catch. He is changing to RB and may play against Cal with his 4.3 speed.

Senior Marc Tyler is the starter and a power runner, but RB Curtis McNeal has been impressive in the past two games running hard and faster.

It is even possible that true freshman George Farmer, the No. 1 WR in high school last year and a 5-star recruit may play in this game as a RB wearing his new No. 8 due to his breakaway speed and receiving ability. Otherwise he will continue to redshirt this season.

USC ranks third in the conference in third down conversions with 49.2 percent, but this needs to improve to sustain drives especially in the red zone.

The Trojans have scored 75 percent of the time in the red zone with only 55 percent touchdowns, and are ranked 92nd nationally and 10th in the conference. Cal scores 86 percent of the time with 61 percent touchdowns after doing poorly in the last two games.

USC finally won a turnover margin against Arizona, but this remains a weakness of this team. They still remain last in the Pac-12. A little luck and more aggressive defense is needed to improve.

The Trojans had only three penalties against Arizona and one was a stupid call and another questionable. However, this has been a problem in the other games especially by the offense because it helped to stop drives. The Trojans are fourth in the Pac-12 with 6.8 penalties and 62.8 yards per game.

 

Harry How/Getty Images
USC Safety T.J. McDonald intercepts a pass against Cal in 2010, and had 2 INTs last week in the Arizona game

It is time for Monte Kiffin to turn his defense loose and allow it to play in the same all-out, aggressive way that Lane Kiffin has taken the offense.

If USC takes a cue from last season against Cal when they led 42-0 at half, the Trojans will throw out the complexities, play fast and aggressive and eliminate last-second adjustments.

The USC defense needs to get after them and just line up and play. Fortunately, coach Jeff Tedford’s Bears do things on offense that are familiar to the Trojan defenders. The Cal game is a good place for the Trojan defense to change from “don’t make a mistake” to “make a play on the ball.”

Coach John Baxter’s special teams are doing well this season. Freshman kicker Andrei Heidari is 7-of-8 in field goals and 15-of-15 in extra points. Punter Kyle Negrete has had few punts returned and has been successful getting the ball inside the 20-yard line. 

Robert Woods has done a good job of returning kickoffs averaging almost 27 yards per kickoff return with a long of 47 yards. USC has blocked a punt, FG and two extra points, and have contained kickoff returns.

 

Keys to Cal victory

The Bears’ offense consists primarily of QB Zach Mannard to his half-brother WR Kennan Allen and WR Marvin Jones.

Allen ranks second and Jones fifth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game. No other tandem matched that. And that's notable because QB Zach Maynard ranks fourth in passing yards per game (258.2).

Harry How/Getty Images
Cal QB Zach Maynard leads the Bear offense

Cal may use their RBs and FB to get Mannard into a rhythm on short drops, and he is mobile enough to escape weak tackles. However, RB Isi Sofele and TE Anthony Miller had only 14 catches and 121 yards through five games.

Cal is tough against the run except against a team with Oregon’s speed and blocking. USC can’t match Oregon’s running game. The Bears had the nationally-ranked ninth best run defense after the Washington game, and are very physical up front. Their safeties also tackle well.

The secondary was ranked 74th in the nation in pass defense and they must play much better to contain the USC receivers. It doesn’t help that top corner Marc Anthony is out for the foreseeable future and a true freshman, Stefan McClure, is in for him.

Cal ranks eighth in the Pac-12 with 8.0 penalties and 71.2 yards per game. They cannot afford penalties at critical times.

Against the Huskies and Ducks, the Bears only scored two touchdowns in eight red-zone opportunities. The Trojan defense has not been very effective recently stopping red-zone TDs so Cal must do a lot better.

Cal has a good placekicker in Giorgio Tavecchio who has made 8-of-9 FG attempts and 17-of-20 PATs. Bryan Anger is averaging 44.3 yards per punt.  The Bears' 1.6 yards per punt return only ranks 115th nationally.

The Bears had a problem with blocked kicks in early games with 3-of-9 extra points blocked in the first two games, and then a punt blocked in the Presbyterian game. USC’s Matt Kalil has already blocked three kicks.

Harry How/Getty Images
Cal defense will need to stop the USC running game and contain the aerial attack

 

Prediction

The key to this game is a more aggressive USC defense to contain Cal’s offense and create turnovers. The Trojans must win the turnover battle and limit penalties, and continue their strong aerial attack and special teams play. Expect the running game to improve and the result will be:

USC 38, California 27 

 

Catch the game on ESPN or ESPN 3D this Thursday at 6:00 p.m. Pacific if you can’t make it in person.

 

*Week 6 AP ranking

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